new faces

Governor’s new appointees to the Indiana State Board of Education offer some clues to his education priorities

PHOTO: AP Photo/Darron Cummings, Pool
Gov. Eric Holcomb, right, responds to a question during a debate for Indiana Governor.

Gov. Eric Holcomb today announced two new appointments to the Indiana State Board of Education — although one will be familiar to those who follow state education policy.

Tony Walker, a lawyer from Gary who served on the board until 2015, will join Kathleen Mote, the interim chancellor of Ivy Tech Community College’s Columbus/Southeast Region, on the board beginning July 1. Both have terms that last until June 2020.

Current board members Vince Bertram and Gordon Hendry will return to the board until their new terms end in 2021. Bertram was appointed for the first time by then-Gov. Mike Pence in 2015, and Gordon was first appointed in 2013.

The move marks Holcomb’s first attempt to actively shape the state’s education agenda after a string of successful legislation, including more funding for preschool. His picks reflect some of his priorities, such as college-to-career transitions and school choice, but he hasn’t yet gotten as involved in education issues as his predecessors. Pence pushed hard for the state’s initial preschool investment, and Gov. Mitch Daniels was at the helm of Indiana’s major charter school and voucher expansions in 2011.

Mote, a Republican from Madison, joined the Ivy Tech Columbus/Southeast Region in 2009, before which she was a deputy prosecutor for several central Indiana counties. Under her leadership, Ivy Tech created initiatives that helped high school students earn college credits and developed career-focused programs with local businesses.

Walker is a Democrat and a strong supporter of school choice. He is also on the board of Thea Bowman Leadership Academy charter school in Gary, and he’s involved in plans for the state takeover of Gary’s public school district that lawmakers approved earlier this year.

The governor appoints eight individuals to the SBOE, each from a different congressional district. At least six of the eight must have professional experience in education, and no more than five of the eight may be members of the same political party.

Over the last two years, the state board has been absent the drama that the previous iteration engaged in under Pence and then-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz. The board was intensely critical of Ritz at the time, and the reshuffle in May of 2015 reduced much of that tension until she left office in January.

The current board members have worked fairly smoothly with state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who they voted to be the board’s chairwoman earlier this year. In 2015, lawmakers removed the requirement that the state schools chief lead the board. Critics asserted it was a move targeted at taking away power from Ritz, who often disagreed with the board and Pence.

For the last few months, two seats on the board have been open. Eddie Melton left after being elected state senator in November, and LeeAnn Kwiatkowski resigned after taking a position as chief of staff in McCormick’s administration.

Here’s the full list of who’s on the state board, effective July 1:

  • Vince Bertram
  • Byron Ernest
  • David Freitas
  • Gordon Hendry
  • Kathleen Mote
  • Tony Walker
  • Maryanne McMahon
  • B.J. Watts
  • Cari Whicker
  • Steve Yager
  • Jennifer McCormick

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.

out of the running

Denver school board candidate Jo Ann Fujioka withdrawing from at-large race

PHOTO: Daniel Brenner/Special to the Denver Post
Jo Ann Fujioka, center, holds signs and participates in a song during a Rally for Health Care earlier this month.

One of three candidates vying to unseat Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien has announced that she is dropping out of the race.

Jo Ann Fujioka said in an email message to supporters this week that she’s ending her candidacy because two other candidates backed out of running with her as a three-person slate. No other candidates have dropped out of the race.

Fujioka, a former Jeffco Public Schools nurse and administrator who lives in Denver, said consultants hired by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association “pressured the other two candidates to withdraw from the slate and then informed me, ‘You bring nothing to the table.’”

Fujioka declined to name the other two candidates or the consultants. Asked about Fujioka’s withdrawal, union president Henry Roman said, “We have strong candidates in every district.”

Four seats on the seven-member Denver Public Schools board are up for election in November. All seven seats are currently held by board members who support the superintendent’s vision, which includes embracing school choice and replacing low-performing schools.

Three incumbents are running for re-election. In the fourth race, the incumbent has endorsed a candidate. Every race is now contested, and every race includes at least one candidate who disagrees with the superintendent’s vision.

Fujioka was running for the at-large seat held by O’Brien on a platform of opposing school closures and new charter schools. Fujioka said her strategy from the beginning was to form a slate of four like-minded candidates. (Until recently, only three races were contested, which is why she said the proposed slate had three members.)

The idea, she said, was that the slate would stand together against the district’s reforms, which she and others have sought to tie to the policies championed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is best known for supporting private school vouchers, which DPS opposes.

“There’s a national anti-voucher, anti-DeVos, anti-Trump feeling,” Fujioka said. “…The fact that there are lots of activists against it, coupled with a ticket of four people saying, ‘This is what we’re railing against,’ that’s the advantage I see.”

Running individual campaigns against the incumbents would be more difficult, she said. When it became clear the slate wasn’t going to happen, Fujioka said she decided to withdraw from the race altogether — and explain her reasoning in a message to supporters, which she also posted on her website.

“It isn’t just that I quit,” she said. “That’s why I put that out there.”

O’Brien, who previously served as Colorado’s lieutenant governor for four years, responded to Fujioka’s statement with a press release saying she was disheartened to learn the reason that one of her opponents was dropping out of the race.

“Too often, women in politics find themselves facing unreasonable institutional barriers,” O’Brien said. “It’s discouraging, misguided and just plain wrong. … That a fellow progressive voice was forced to exit the race because consultants told her, ‘You bring nothing to the table,’ is more of the same that women in public service, and everywhere, have to tolerate.”

Fujioka called O’Brien’s statement “the sleaziest piece of campaign propaganda” she’d seen.

“I am appalled at Barbara hopping on this like a vulture to make it sound like she is so empathetic to my situation as a woman, when it really had nothing to do with being a woman,” Fujioka said. “Such a blatant appeal to women is shoddy at best.”

O’Brien said her statement was heartfelt.

Two other candidates confirmed that they’re still in the running against O’Brien: northwest Denver father Robert Speth, who narrowly lost an election to a school board incumbent in 2015, and former DPS teacher Julie Banuelos.

In the race for the board seat representing northeast Denver, two candidates — Tay Anderson and Jennifer Bacon — are challenging incumbent Rachele Espiritu.

In central east Denver, candidate Carrie A. Olson is challenging incumbent Mike Johnson.

And in southwest Denver, candidate Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan is challenging candidate Angela Cobian, who has been endorsed by the board member who currently holds that seat.